Ireland's fears that Iain Henderson will play no part in their Six Nations title defence have been confirmed but the star forward is still hoping to return in time for the closing stages of Ulster's season as well as the national side's summer tour of South Africa.
s revealed by the Belfast Telegraph in December, a hamstring injury sustained by the dynamic 23-year-old in Ulster's PRO12 win over Edinburgh is serious enough to rule him out of coach Joe Schmidt's thinking in his bid for a third consecutive championship and possibly the remainder of the season though his fitness fight goes on. A renowned fast healer, Henderson required a cage around his left leg after the injury but that protection is no longer needed and the 23-times-capped forward is already walking normally and able to undertake upper body work.
The injury has been a big blow to both Les Kiss' Ulster side and Ireland after Henderson played such a prominent role at the World Cup.
With Paul O'Connell having moved to Toulon, and subsequently not available for Test selection, and Donnacha Ryan also struggling for fitness, his injury leaves Ireland with a potential shortage of locks for their Six Nations opener against Wales in the first weekend of February.
Ulster, meanwhile, have had to do without a host of established internationals during what has been a crucial run of their season.
While results have been strong over the last five weeks, the team have also been missing Tommy Bowe, also out of the Six Nations, Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy, Stuart Olding and Dan Tuohy.
Cave and Gilroy are the closest to a return and could even come into contention for this weekend's Champions Cup clash with Oyonnax or against Saracens next week.
Both Payne and Olding are expected back before the start of the Six Nations, even if this European window has come just too soon.
Bowe last night ruled himself out of contention for a return in time for the Six Nations but still expects a return to full fitness in the spring.